2660. Robert Southey to John May, 6 October 1815

2660. Robert Southey to John May, 6 October 1815 ⁠* 

Liege. 6 Oct. 1815. Six P.M.

My dear friend

I have a happy habit of making the best of all things & being just at this time as uncomfortable as the dust & bustle & all the disagreeables of an inn in a larger filthy manufacturing city can make me, I have called for pen ink & paper & am actually writing in the bar, the door open to the yard opposite this unwiped table, the folding doors open to the public room where two men are dining, & talking French, & a woman servant at my elbow lighting a fire for our party. Presently the folding doors are to be shut, the ladies will descend from their chambers, the bar will be kept appropriated to our house, the male part of the company will get into good humour, dinner will be ready & then – I must lay aside the grey goose quill. As a preliminary to these promised comforts, the servant is now mopping the hearth, which is composed (like a tesselated pavement) of little bricks about two inches long by half an inch wide, set within a broad black stone frame. The fuel is of fire balls, – a mixture of pulverised coal & clay. I have seen a great deal & heard a great deal more indeed than I can keep pace with in my journal, tho I strive hard to do it: but I minute down short notes in my pencil book with all possible care & hope in the end to lose nothing.

As for Harry & his party I know nothing more of them than that they landed at Ostend a week before us & proceeded to Bruges. This we learnt from Mrs Harrison at Ramsgate. [1]  I wrote to him from Ostend; my letter was not lying at the Brussels post office, therefore I conclude he received it. Tomorrow we shall probably learn tidings of them at Spa. Meantime we have joined company with some fellow passengers, Mr Vardon of Greenwich with his family & Mr Nash an artist who has lived many years in India.

Flanders is a most interesting country. – Bruges the most striking city that I have ever seen: an old city in perfect preservation; – it seems as if not a house has been built during the last two centuries, & not a house suffered to go to decay. The poorest people seem to be well lodged, & there is a general air of sufficiency, cleanliness, industry & comfort which I have never seen in any other place. The cities have grown worse as we advanced. Ghent (tho very interesting) is less so than Bruges, – there is more that is modern, more that is vicious, more that is wretched. Brussels has some very fine parts the work of old times. – The modern parts are fine also but they are French, & the city has the credit (which you & I shall agree in thinking the worst possible character) of being a second Paris. At Namur we reached a dirty city, situated in a romantic country. The Meuse there reminded me of the Thames from your delightful house, an island in size & shape resembling that on which I have often wished for a grove of poplars coming just in the same position. From thence along the river to this abominable place. The country is for the greater part as lovely as can be imagined, – especially at Huy, where we slept last night & fell in with one of the inhabitants, [2]  a man of more than ordinary intellect from whom I learnt much of the state of public opinion &c.

Our weather hitherto has been delightful: this was especially fortunate at Waterloo & at Ligny where we had much ground to walk over. It would surprize you to see how soon Nature has recovered from the injuries of war. the ground is plowed and sown, – & grain & flowers & weeds already growing over the field of battle, which is still strewn with vestiges of the slaughter, caps cartridge boxes, hats &c. We picked up some French cards, & some bullets, & we purchased a French pistol, & two of the eagles which the infantry wear upon their caps. What I felt upon this ground, it would be difficult to say, – what I saw & still more what I heard, there is no time at present for saying. In prose & in verse you shall one day hear the whole. [3] 

At Les Quartre Bras [4]  I saw two graves which probably the dogs or the swine had opened, – in the one were the ribs of a human body projecting thro the mould, in the other the whole skeleton exposed. Some of our party told me of a third in which the worms were at work – but I shrunk from the sight. You will rejoice to hear that the English are as well spoken of for their deportment in peace as in war. It is far otherwise with the Prussians, concerning them there is but one opinion, – their brutality is said to exceed that of the French, & of their intolerable insolences I have heard but too many proofs. That abominable old Frederick [5]  made them a military nation, & this is the inevitable consequence. This very day we passed a party on their way toward France – some hundred or two – two Gentlemen & two Ladies of the country in a carriage had come up with them, & these ruffians would not allow them to pass, but compelled them to wait & follow the slow pace of foot soldiers! This we ourselves saw. Next to the English the Belgians have the best character for discipline.

I have laid out some money in books. – four or five & twenty pounds. & I have bargained for a set of the Acta Sanctorum [6]  to be completed & sent after me, the price 500 franks. This is an invaluable acquisition. Neither our time or money will allow us to reach the Rhine, – we turn back from Aix la Chapelle, & take the route of Maestricht & Louvaine to Antwerp thence to Ghent again, & cross from Calais. I bought at Bruges a French history of Brazil just published by M Alphonse de Beauchamp in three volumes octavo. [7]  He says in his preface that having finished the first two volumes he thought it advisable to see if any new light had been thrown upon the subject by modern authors. Meantime a compilation upon this history had appeared in England but the English Author M. Southey had brought no new lights. he had promised much for his second volume, – but the hope of Literary Europe had been again deceived for this second vol. so emphatically promised had not appeared. – I dare say no person regrets this delay so much as M. Beauchamp himself, he having stolen the whole of his two first vol. & about a third part of the other from the very M Southey whom he abuses. He has copied my references as the best of his own authorities (Manuscript & all!) & he has committed blunders which prove beyond all doubt that he does not even understand Portugueze. I have been much diverted by this fellows impudence. The table is laid & the knives & forks rattling a pleasant note of preparation as the woman waiter arranges them. God bless you. I have hurried thro the sheet, & thus pleasantly beguiled what would else have been a very unpleasant hour. We are all well, & your god-daughter has seen a live Emperor at Brussels. [8]  I feel the disadvantage of speaking French ill & understanding it by the ear worse. Nevertheless I speak it without remorse, make myself somehow or other understood. I get at what I want to know. Once more God bless you my dear friend – believe me

Always, omnibus in terris [9] 

Most affectionately yours



* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ 4. Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square/ London
Stamped: LIEGE
Postmark: [partial] OC/ 13/
Endorsement: No. 182 1815/ Robert Southey/ Liege 6th October/ recd. 13th do./ ansd personally
Watermark: B M & Co/ [illegible]
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 145–147; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 132–136. BACK

[1] Unidentified. BACK

[2] Francois-Joseph Ouwerx (dates unknown) of Huys, a manufacturer of soap. His father-in-law was Nicolas Delloye (dates unknown), a tin manufacturer. BACK

[3] Southey’s Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo, dedicated to John May, was published in 1816. BACK

[4] The site of a crucial battle between Anglo-Dutch and French forces on 16 June 1815. BACK

[5] Frederick II, the Great (1712–1786; King of Prussia 1740–1786). BACK

[6] Southey hoped he had bought the 53 volume Acta Sanctorum (1643–1794), no. 207 in the Sale catalogue of Southey’s Library. In fact he received a 6 volume edition of 1783–1794, no. 152 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[7] Alphonse de Beauchamp (1769–1832), Histoire du Brésil, 3 vols (Paris, 1815), I, p. x; no. 138 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. This may not be the copy Southey purchased at Bruges, as its pages were uncut. BACK

[8] Alexander I (1777–1825; Emperor of Russia 1801–1825). BACK

[9] ‘In all the lands’. BACK

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